When I spoke to Sumathi Ramanathan, director of destination marketing for Expo 2020 Dubai, in April last year, the rapid spread of Covid-19 had already thrown the event into doubt.
A one-year delay was duly confirmed by the Bureau International des Expositions in May, with the show now set to open in October this year.
Alongside the Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020, Expo 2020 Dubai was perhaps the largest event to fall victim to the pandemic, with millions of guests forced to rearrange their trips to the Middle Eastern destination.
The United Arab Emirates itself, however, weathered the Covid-19 storm well, recoding just over 750 deaths to date.
With Dubai having reopened to tourism in July last year, and key hospitality personnel currently receiving vaccinations against the virus, there is growing hope the event can be hosted in something approaching a normal environment this year.
Ramanathan tells Breaking Travel News: “We are very confident we can host Expo 2020 in Dubai this year.
“I am sure you and your readers are aware that Dubai was one of the first cities to reopen to international tourism.
“Everything is progressing as planned, and we have more than 190 countries which have committed to the event.
“The site continues to progress beautifully, with the majority of the construction completed.
“There is still some work to do on individual national pavilions, but a lot of incredible buildings have now been completed.
“Saudi Arabia, Spain and Japan are some of the standouts so far, with many more to come on the site.
“We are excited – the project is coming to life.”
More than 200 participants – including more than 190 countries, multilateral organisations, education establishments and companies – are expected to come together for Expo 2020 Dubai.
Dozens of nations have already revealed the design, theme and visitor experiences to be on offer in their pavilions, with the UK among those to show its hand.
The British pavilion was inspired by the late scientist Stephen Hawking and muses on one of the most mind-boggling questions: how can humanity express itself in an alien civilisation?
Exploring ideas such as space travel and creating exoskeletons for the disabled; the pavilion provides a glimpse into a future closer than many think.
It will feature a continuously changing poem on the exterior, generated by AI and based on visitors’ contributions.
Ramanathan says the support from partner countries and organisations has driven optimism in Dubai that the event can be a success.
She explains: “One of the most surprising things we have seen has been the support from the partner countries.
“The decision to postpone the event followed a request from the participants; they suggested they needed time to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
“However, since then, the commitment has been unwavering.
“The lack of international communication, in person, over the past year has increased the demand for events such as Expo 2020 – as humans, we still very much want to come together in person.
“Participants are looking at the event as the earliest opportunity to reconvene in a safe environment – and thus their commitment remains to the show.”
For those already in Dubai, the first taste of the site is now on offer, following the recent launch of Expo 2020 Pavilions Premiere.
A limited-time opportunity for visitors to preview the thematic pavilions, the programme will provide a glimpse of what is to come when Expo 2020 Dubai welcomes the world from October 1st.
Guests are currently being offer an opportunity to be among the first to experience Terra – the Sustainability Pavilion, with the location open to the public from January 22nd until April 10th.
Alif – the Mobility Pavilion and Mission Possible – the Opportunity Pavilion will follow later in the first quarter of 2021.
Organisers hope visitors will be the first of millions to venture through the gates in the coming months.
Ramanathan continues: “Dubai hoped to welcome 25 million guests in 2020 – and this was a figure developed in close consultation with the tourism authorities, airlines and others.
“Currently, we are maintaining our ticketing ambitions – but we are cognisant things continue to unfold, both on a domestic and international scale.
“It is important to remember, the event is still eight months down the road, and while it opens in October, it goes on until March 2022.
“We have 14 months until the end of the event; and with vaccines being deployed quite rapidly now, we could be in a very different place in six- to 12-months time.”
However, with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic likely to be felt in some fashion until at least 2022, Expo 2020 Dubai organisers are seeking to make the show as safe as possible.
“In terms of visitors, we have put a number of measures in place to ensure safety,” continues Ramanathan.
“We have worked with the United Arab Emirates’ health authorities, as well as the World Health Organisation, to ensure we meet the correct standards.
“We continue to monitor how the world is coping with the crisis – and health and safety is of course our top priority.
“There are currently temperature checkpoints on site, visitors are required to wear masks, social distancing is in place and all venues are regularly cleaned.
“The site is huge, some 4.38 kilometres squared, so this gives a great opportunity to keep people safe.
“In total we can accommodate 125,000 people at any one time, across the pavilions, public spaces and elsewhere, so this is a great advantage.”
So what will guests be able to see if they make the trip to Expo 2020 Dubai?
Ramanathan continues: “The theme of the event remains very much the same, Expo 2020 is about connecting minds and creating the future.
“The world needs this more than ever, a chance to come together and achieve a joint solution to the challenges we face.
“Every country has been grappling with the same challenges – and this will provide an opportunity to come together.”
She adds: “Our partners have taken the year-long delay to sharpen their offering and to work out what is most relevant to audiences right now.
“A lot of the content has been revisited to ensure it is as close to what the consumer wants as possible.
“We, as organisers of Expo 2020, are doing the same.
“There will be very few places in the world offering the opportunity to connect in 2021, without the need for visas, PCR tests and the rest – we hope to be one of them.”
In the build up to the main event, there will also be a series of thematic weeks focusing on specific topics, such as space.
Each will bring together influential policymakers, thought-leaders, Expo 2020 participants and the public for question-and-answer sessions and panel discussions that will help shape the thought-provoking content on offer at the show.
Weeks on global goals, climate and biodiversity, knowledge and learning, and water are also set to follow.
“These themes will be explored in more detail during the event, and in the coming months we will be putting together a line-up of key speakers who will be coming to offer their expertise in these areas,” concludes Ramanathan.
Expo 2020 Dubai is currently scheduled to launch on October 1st – with more information on the official website.